Driving the streets of my neighborhood during prime traffic hours, three times I clutched the steering wheel in horror as I watched a kid riding his bike on the wrong side of the road, facing into traffic, the front tire wobbling precariously away from the curb on narrow city streets.
The kids wore helmets. Two of them had shiny new bikes. On their backs were fat backpacks, stuffed with all the requisite supplies -- pencils, pens, protractor, ruler, binders, planners, colored pencils, markers. All the stuff that would, presumably, make them feel prepared to do the required work, to succeed.
That's what we do to our kids -- we give them new bikes, but don't take the time to teach them how to safely ride them. We require them to come to school each new year with a bag full of supplies, but don't teach them how to use them in ways that give them satisfaction or a real sense of accomplishment.
And in the age of paranoia and school shootings, we give them extra armed security guards, ID tags, more surveillance cameras, more elaborate school evacuation plans; more stuff, not more of ourselves.
This year, my two seventh-graders were each required to buy one of their school's new planning books, complete with a shiny "millennium edition" cover. Inside are 10 full pages of district policy, all written in wonk-speak, guaranteed to discourage reading by even the most eager students.
Following that are pages of fill-in-the-blank worksheets describing study skills, time-management theory and how best to plan your school day -- a game plan for becoming a successful cog in the big wheel of life.
Instead of focusing on kids as individuals, and hoping to give them something to learn, something we hope they will love enough to master and eventually share with others, we give them corporate formulas for success, jargon written and manufactured by graphic artists and curriculum technicians somewhere far away, packaged and sold to our kids as necessary goods.
Of course, doing anything else takes time -- a commodity we have learned to devour like hotcakes, something we rarely have enough of to give away.
What if, instead of attempting to raise our kids with more and more "tools," instead of reacting to problems by throwing more and more knee-jerk solutions at them, instead of trying to "equip" them, we stopped and asked ourselves what they really need.
And what if we asked ourselves the same question.
Talking to my friend Cate on the telephone the night before school began, I realized what I needed was a day off to send my kids to school. We agreed that all parents should be relieved of work responsibilities on the days surrounding the beginning of school, so that we could do it right.
The following morning, I read a piece by Ellen Goodman describing a community in Vermont that has instituted a communitywide holiday for parents on the first day of school. Instead of rushing the kids off, loaded up with all the right stuff, parents are invited to come in and meet the teachers, to be there when school's out in the afternoon, to spend the day with their kids.
First Day has been so popular in this community that a foundation is now organizing efforts across Vermont to turn it into a statewide holiday.
With all the recent empty talk of what our children need, and all the lame attempts to provide what they need -- not with actual physical, spiritual, verbal and emotional contact but with big ideas, programs, curricula and paraphernalia -- I think we should make First Day no less than a national holiday.
Obviously, it wouldn't solve the ongoing problem of not enough time. It would merely be a beginning. And more importantly, it would be a statement to our children, a declaration of our priorities, backed up by our actual physical presence, something sorely missing in so many of the good ideas of late.
Instead of sending our kids off alone, facing headlong into approaching traffic, maybe we should, at least for one day, stop and watch, maybe even ride along.
This piece was first published on Sept. 2, 1999.